Artist Daieny Chin unpeels the powerful symbolic value of the banana

From racist slang to extinct plant species, the LA-based Korean artist gets us up to speed on all the symbolic banana references in their paintings.

25 April 2022

Daieny Chin is a master of symbolism. Their colourful paintings are at once mystical and otherworldly yet at the same time comforting and relatable. Their portfolio is the habitat of strange, cuddly mythical beasts which canoodle with curvaceous naked figures – all of which are modelled on the women in the artist’s family. Some of the creatures that appear in their artworks, like the Tasmanian tiger, are based on real animals that have gone extinct. “Other animals are based on Korean mythology, like the haetae, the lion-dog that acts as a guardian and protects,” Daieny tells It’s Nice That. “They are my ancestral manifestation guiding the matriarchs in my family; constantly watching over their shoulders, and protecting them from evil.”

Alongside the mythological characters, there is one other distinctive feature that reoccurs in their work – namely, bananas. An easily-missed, jolly little addition at first glance, the bananas are actually one of the most symbolically loaded aspects of their paintings. Daieny explains: “The term ‘banana’ is used as an insult to Asian-Americans, meaning you’re yellow on the outside but white on the inside”. But they also have a complex history entwined in European imperialism and colonial trade, the artist adds. And of course the “phallic” shape of bananas does not go unmentioned.

All these different elements come into play in their piece I only love myself white men love me. This is perhaps the most important piece in their portfolio and they see it as “the foundation my paintings are now built upon”. Paradoxically it’s also one that they’ve felt most ashamed of in the past because it deals with the “internalised racism that overwhelmed me at times, and the constant validation I craved from white people”. In this self-portrait Daieny curls up in a bundle of blankets, despondently staring into space as they consume a banana – they are “literally eating whiteness”.


Daieny Chin: I only love myself when white men love me (Copyright © Daieny Chin, 2017)

The banana-flavoured snacks which spill across the bottom of the painting also have symbolic value. As it unfolds, Tasmanian tigers are not the only extinct species Daieny is interested in: “Anything banana flavoured is based on the Gros Michel variant of bananas, which went extinct in the 1950s due to a fungus, and now the modern bananas we eat are the Cavendish bananas.” So in this case Daieny uses this modern commodity to symbolise a preservation of the past, whilst simultaneously weaving in older histories of “colonial overconsumption” which are inextricably linked to the humble yellow fruit… we will never look at bananas quite the same way again.

When they’re not delving into the mythological realms of their ancestry or the colonial implications of fruit, Daieny likes to capture moments of tenderness amongst the women in their family. A painting that’s very close to their heart is Love language in Confucianism. It captures the sense of security that Daieny felt when their mother would clean their ears as a child – “such a tender moment growing up as an Asian-American”.

As an adult, Daieny has struggled to express love, especially the kind of love that gets represented on TV. “I repress physical and vocal expressions often shown in western media and cultures,” they explain, “because to me and to many other Asian-Americans, it wasn’t the norm.” So celebrating this comforting ritual, makes this piece both personal and universal. Personal in that it captures the moments of the artists’ life when they felt “most warm and loved”, and universal in that it relates to the experience of many other Asian-Americans. They add, “I found that a lot of Asian-Americans saw themselves reflected back in this painting, which makes me happy because those kinds of representations were rarely seen until recently in America.”


Daieny Chin: Love Language in Confucianism (Copyright © Daieny Chin, 2022)


Daieny Chin: Middle of Nowhere (Copyright © Daieny Chin, 2022)


Daieny Chin: Be here with me (Copyright © Daieny Chin, 2021)


Daieny Chin: The Sent Down Girl (Copyright © Daieny Chin, 2022)


Daieny Chin: We meet in my dreams, immortalized at 23 (Copyright © Daieny Chin, 2021)


Daieny Chin: Sweet angel (Copyright © Daieny Chin, 2021)


Daieny Chin: I’m so sorry I couldn’t save you (Copyright © Daieny Chin, 2021)

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Daieny Chin: Our mothers were witches in disguise (Copyright © Daieny Chin, 2021)

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About the Author

Elfie Thomas

Elfie joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in November 2021 after finishing an art history degree at Sussex University. She is particularly interested in creative projects which shed light on histories that have been traditionally overlooked or misrepresented.

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